What does racism mean? What do we understand by racial discrimination?

Terms used in connection with racism and racial discrimination

When discussing topics such as racism and racial discrimination, agreeing on the terminology presents an immediate challenge as the language used in the debate can have political and legal consequences.

In 2014, the Service for Combating Racism (SCRA) joined forces with experts from the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) to produce an internal study on the key terms used when talking about racism in the national and international context: The language of racism (PDF, 801 kB, 02.03.2017, DE / FR)

The study approaches the topic from a legal perspective, exploring the ideological, political, academic and legal discourse at length. However, it can also be referred to on an ad hoc basis for information on particular terms. The following text provides a very brief overview of the terminology associated with racism and discrimination; readers looking for more detailed explanations can consult the full study.

It should generally be noted that most cases of racial discrimination in Switzerland are not ideologically motivated. Instead, they tend to be based on ignorance, vague fears, aggression, prejudice and a lack of empathy. But regardless of whether or not racist acts have any basis in ideology, efforts to eradicate racism must first and foremost recognise that racial discrimination exists – at the structural, institutional and individual level. The crucial point is to recognise the harm suffered by victims of discrimination.

However, prevention and awareness-raising does not mean pointing the finger at ‘racists’, thereby creating new scapegoats. Rather, it means creating the right conditions in everyday life to stop racial discrimination from happening. And above all, it is about developing the ability to recognise discrimination and taking continuous action to combat it.


Racism describes an ideology that divides people into supposedly natural groups on the basis of their ethnic origin, nationality or religion (so-called ‘races’) and arranges these groups hierarchically. People are thus not treated as individuals, but are viewed as members of pseudo-natural groupings which are assigned shared characteristics that are considered immutable.

As a social construct, a ‘race’ is not only defined by its outward appearance, but also by supposed differences in culture, religion or ancestral heritage. It is used, for example, to justify existing socio-economic or educational inequalities by
attributing them to ‘natural’ biological differences based on a person’s ethnic, cultural or religious affiliation. In contrast to the English-speaking world, in Continental Europe the term ‘race’ itself is held to have racist connotations and is therefore usually placed in quotation marks. However, as the term is enshrined in international treaties it is also used in Art. 8 of the Federal Constitution and Art. 261bis of the Swiss Criminal Code to describe one of the grounds on which no person may be discriminated against.

Racial discrimination

Racial discrimination describes any act or practice by which people are unfairly disadvantaged, humiliated, threatened or their life or health is endangered on grounds of their physical appearance, ethnic origin, cultural characteristics and/or religious affiliation. Unlike racism, racial discrimination is not necessarily underpinned by ideology. Although sometimes conscious, it is frequently unintentional (taking the form of indirect or structural discrimination, for example).


The Cambridge Dictionary defines attitude as “a feeling or opinion about something or someone, or a way of behaving that is caused by this.” This broad definition also covers positive, negative and stereotypical opinions in particular. Personal attitudes voiced in private are protected by the right to freedom of expression and are not subject to legal action. Racist attitudes do not necessarily lead to racist acts and are not necessarily underpinned by ideology. However, they can contribute to a climate in which there is a tendency to tolerate or approve of racist statements and discriminatory acts, even though the majority of the population would never behave in such a manner themselves.

Direct discrimination

Direct discrimination occurs when someone is treated less favourably than another person in a comparable situation on grounds that are unlawful. Direct discrimination should be distinguished from “unequal treatment” based on criteria or grounds that are permitted.

The Federal Supreme Court speaks of direct discrimination when “a person is treated unequally before the law based on membership of a certain group which had a tendency historically and in the present social reality to be excluded or treated as inferior. Discrimination represents a qualified type of unequal treatment of people in comparable situations that results in one person being disadvantaged and that can be characterised as disparagement or exclusion, because it attaches to a differentiating attribute that is an essential component of the affected person’s identity and impossible or very difficult to give up; in this respect, discrimination also addresses aspects of human dignity.” (First published in BGE 126 II 377 E. 6a p. 392 f.) (erstmals in BGE 126 II 377 E. 6a S. 392 f.)

Indirect discrimination

Indirect discrimination refers to legal rules, policies or practices which appear to be neutral but nevertheless lead to certain people being treated less favourably than others for no good reason.

According to the Federal Supreme Court “indirect discrimination [...] occurs when a rule does not obviously disadvantage certain groups protected against discrimination, but which in practice has the effect of placing people from such a group at a particularly strong disadvantage without any objective justification.” (BGE 129 I 217 E. 2.1 p. 224). (BGE 129 I 217 E. 2.1 S. 224).

Multiple discrimination

Multiple discrimination describes the situation where an individual is discriminated against on more than one ground (e.g. physical appearance or religion plus gender, social class, disability or another characteristic).

In the case of intersectional discrimination, several forms of exclusion interact concurrently in such a way as to give rise to a very distinct and specific form of discrimination. For example, a racist act directed at a woman may manifest itself as sexism or, vice versa, an act inspired by sexism may appear to be racially motivated.


Xenophobia, which literally means ‘fear of strangers’, describes an attitude based on prejudices and stereotypes that creates negative feelings towards everything that is perceived to be foreign, strange or unfamiliar. Social psychology tells us that hostility towards ‘foreigners’ gives rise to a belief in the superiority of one’s own culture over others. The pictures built up of those who are perceived as ‘foreign’ or ‘other’ are not rooted in anthropological structures, but are instead based on sociocultural criteria. In other words, they are not an inherent part of the natural order and can be changed. The danger in using the term xenophobia is that seeking to explain stigmatisation mechanisms in terms of psychology and biology (as indicated by the ‘-phobia’ suffix) is tantamount to saying that violence and exclusion are inevitable given the nature of things. However, the term is useful in describing a vague attitude that is not necessarily rooted in ideology but which represents a general rejection of everything ‘foreign’, a fear of ‘over-foreignisation’ and the desire for a discriminatory, restrictive immigration policy. Another reason for using this term is the fact that it is enshrined in international treaties and documents (commonly paired with racism as ‘racism and xenophobia’).


The term anti-Muslimism describes a negative outlook or attitude towards people who identify themselves as Muslims or are perceived as such. Other components may include a dislike of people who come from a particular (predominantly Muslim) country, opposition to a society that is judged to be patriarchal and sexist, or the rejection of fundamental religious practices. The belief that all Muslims want to introduce Sharia law and claims that they have no respect for human rights or that they generally sympathise with Islamic terrorism also form part of the typical anti-Muslim world view. We prefer the term anti Muslimism to that of Islamophobia as the main aim of the government measures tackling discrimination against Muslims is to protect individuals and groups of people, and not the religion as such. Another danger in using the term Islamophobia is that seeking to explain stigmatisation mechanisms in terms of psychology and biology (as indicated by the ‘-phobia’ suffix) is tantamount to saying that violence and exclusion stem from natural causes.

Chapter 6.3.2 of the SCRA report (PDF, 1 MB, 26.11.2018) looks at anti-Muslimism and the measures taken to combat it.

Anti-black racism

Anti-black racism, or racism directed towards black people or people of African descent, is based specifically on skin colour and physical characteristics. Conclusions are drawn about a person’s inner being (genotype) from their outward appearance (phenotype), and negative traits and behaviours are ascribed to them on that basis. Anti-black racism can be traced back to the racist ideologies of the 17th and 18th centuries, which served as justification for colonialism and slavery. It currently affects very different sections of the population in Switzerland (Swiss people of African, North or South American descent, and immigrants from those regions and neighbouring European countries). Unlike racist attitudes and behaviour towards other people on grounds of their (actual or supposed) religion or culture, this type of racism is based on characteristics that are both visible and immutable. The person’s outward appearance or skin colour is the deciding factor, regardless of whether they have just arrived in Switzerland or lived here for generations, and regardless of how well integrated they may be. This means that anti-black racism cannot be eradicated by encouraging integration. Only measures to eliminate discriminatory behaviour and attitudes can work.

Chapter 6.3.3 of the SCRA report (PDF, 1 MB, 26.11.2018) looks at anti-black racism and the measures taken to combat it.


Antisemitism / anti-Judaism / hatred of Jews: Anti-Judaism, or hatred of Jews, describes a negative outlook or attitude towards people who identify themselves as Jewish or are perceived as such. Antisemitism is now used as a generic term and partly as a synonym for all forms of hostility towards Jews. It is an unusual phenomenon in the context of racism, as it ascribes an ethnic identity to individuals on the basis of their religious affiliation (Judaism); (the root word ‘Semite’ is misleading as it actually refers to everyone who speaks a Semitic language).

Antisemitism encompasses both hate crimes, i.e. racially motivated criminal acts such as attacks on the physical integrity or property of Jewish people and institutions, and hate speech, i.e. spoken and written communications that attack Jewish people and institutions. In addition to civil law measures such as the right to appeal against anti-Jewish discrimination, the steps taken to register and prosecute criminal offences motivated by anti-Jewish or antisemitic sentiment play an essential role in the measures required to combat antisemitism.At the same time, antisemitism can also refer to hostile convictions, prejudices and stereotypes that manifest themselves – clearly or otherwise – within a culture or society or in the actions of its members, and which are intended to establish that culture or society’s superiority over Jews as a group, Jewish individuals or Jewish institutions, or to insult, humiliate or disadvantage them. Efforts to combat antisemitism must take place in every area of life – at the federal, cantonal, communal and, above all, individual level.

The main aim of the government measures tackling discrimination against those who are Jewish or perceived as Jewish, is to protect individuals and groups of people, and not the religion as such.

This definition adds to that of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

Chapter 6.3.4 of the SCRA report (PDF, 1 MB, 26.11.2018) looks at antisemitism and the measures taken to combat it.


Antigypsyism is a term that draws important parallels with antisemitism. It has been in use since the 1980s to describe an attitude shaped by stereotypical views and hostility towards individuals and groups who are stigmatised as ‘gypsies’ (Yenish, Sinti, Roma and others), regardless of whether or not they lead a travelling lifestyle. Historically, hostility towards ‘gypsies’ has taken the form of economic, social or state-sponsored discrimination and various forms of political persecution that go as far as deportation, internment, forced sterilisation and state-perpetrated genocide. The term is not without controversy as it includes the word ‘gypsy’, which is itself an external name with racist connotations that are perpetuated by using it to refer to racism towards Yenish, Sinti or Roma.

Chapters 6.3.5 and 6.3.6 of the SCRA report (PDF, 1 MB, 26.11.2018) look at the situation of the Yenish and Sinti, whether itinerant or sedentary, and the situation of the Roma in Switzerland.

Right-wing extremism

Right-wing extremism is characterised by its refusal to recognise that all human beings are equal, coupled with an ideology of exclusion that may also be accompanied by an increased propensity for violence. All definitions of right-wing extremism agree that racism and xenophobia are core elements of this phenomenon. Those who espouse right-wing extremism believe in racially or ethnically based social inequality and seek to establish ethnic homogeneity. They refuse to accept that fundamental rights and human rights apply universally to all people everywhere. They reject the pluralism of values that characterises liberal democracy and wage war on the ‘multiculturalism’ of the globalised world.

Chapter 6.2.12 of the SCRA report (PDF, 1 MB, 26.11.2018) looks at right-wing extremism and the measures taken to combat it.